Northern Turkey is well known for tea as well as hazelnuts, which account for 70 percent of the production of oilseed plants globally. During the harvest season, farmers bring in seasonal workers, most of whom are Kurdish or Syrian. Many of them work in difficult conditions, often without a contract, and are sometimes victims of racism. When a video showing a group of men beating Kurdish seasonal workers, among them a teenage girl, appeared online, it reignited a nationwide debate on racism.
A video filmed on September 4 shows a group of eight men in Ortaköy Sütmahalle, a village in the northern Turkish province of Sakarya, beating a group of seasonal workers hired from the Mardin region 1,200 kilometres away to pick hazelnuts. Viewers were particularly horrified by the image of one of these men striking a 14-year-old girl. According to a statement by her father, the teenager was traumatized by the incident.
The group of 16 workers who came under attack were all from the Mardin region and most of them were members of the same extended family. Kasim Demir, the father of the girl shown in the video, told the BBC: "Men went after children. I didn’t see them hit my daughter. If I had seen them hit women, then things would have gone differently.” He added that the attack was racist in nature and that they had been abused because of their Kurdish identity.
One family member, Baris Demir, told Kurdish press agency Mésopotamie that the perpetrators included the son and the nephew of the owner of the hazelnut farm. Dermir added that the violence began after a fight at the site where the seasonal employees were working:
When we went to the farm that morning, the owner insulted us and called us a “pack of dogs”. When we left, he threatened us, saying “You think that you are at home here? This [land] belongs to us." Then eight people wielding batons came and attacked us.
The family left the site immediately and returned to Mardin by minibus the next morning.
Past attacks on Kurds in Sakarya
After the story was published in the Turkish media, two assailants were arrested before being released under certain conditions. Several representatives of the party in power, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), claimed the attack didn’t have any racist undertones and that it was just a “dispute between peasants”.
Representatives from the Kurdish community, including Abdulhakim Daş, the president of the platform of Associations of the Southeast (DGD), said that “this attack is the practical manifestation of a racist mentality cultivated [in this country] over the past century”.
In October 2019, a group of six people lynched a 19-year-old Kurdish seasonal worker named Sirin Tosun after he dared to speak in Kurdish. Tosun was then shot in the head and died after 54 days in intensive care.
In December 2018 in Sakarya, a Kurdish man was killed in the middle of the street when he was going to pick up his son at the barber. The men who attacked the father asked him where he was from and he said he was Kurdish before he was killed.
"The local population in this region is known for ultra-nationalist sentiments”
Özgür Çetinkaya often works with seasonal workers in Turkey in his role as project leader for the “Development Workshop” cooperative (Kalinma atölyesi), which promotes the cooperative model and regularly publishes reports on seasonal agricultural work.
Acts of racism targeting seasonal workers, who are mostly Syrian or Kurd, regularly occur in the Black Sea region in northern Turkey. The local population in this region is known for harbouring ultra-nationalist sentiments. I remember, for example, that the governor of Ordu province (northeast) banned Kurdish seasonal workers from working during the harvest a few years back [between 2003 and 2008].
Violence between farmers and the seasonal workers they employ is not rare. It often starts with a fight over salary or working conditions. In Turkey, seasonal workers don’t have a contract, just an oral agreement. If the farmer can’t pay or if he cuts the salary or pays late--all common occurrences--that creates tension.
Tensions heightened by low salaries and difficult working conditions
These tensions are heightened by the frustration of impoverished families who spend all summer working, children included, so they can survive the winter in their region, where there is very little work. These people often work 12 to 13 hour days without proper equipment under the sun. They carry heavy loads and sleep in sheds or tents, often with very little comfort.
They are often in debt and part of their salary [which amounts to 65 to 90 Turkish lira per day, equivalent to seven to €10, whereas the minimum legal wage is 115 lira or €13 per day] is paid to the intermediary who finds them work.
The Italian company Ferrero, which notably produces the famous Nutella spread, is the biggest buyer of the hazelnuts harvested by seasonal workers in northern Turkey. To push for improved working conditions for these agricultural laborers and the widespread use of child labour, the multinational company has started training programs for hazelnut farmers. Ferrero also launched a process for tracing the sourcing of hazelnuts. But as the BBC revealed in 2019, these initiatives don’t do nearly enough to address the problems of child labour and salaries that are well below minimum wage